Being socialised as a woman in this society is extremely difficult. You spend your entire life essentially learning that no matter what you do, you can’t win. You’re either too meek or too aggressive, too big or too small, too loud or too quiet, not driven enough or too focused on work, shrewish or too much of a doormat. Every single possible move you make is carefully scrutinised, analysed, and then thrown in your face as evidence that you are inferior and should work harder.
This is a sexist society, one where women at all intersections face significant social obstacles, many of which are exacerbated by additional issues specific to individual women; for example, disabled women face ableism in addition to sexism, and the two can combine in very ugly ways. Sexism, thus, is a frequent topic of conversation for us as a collective society, as we look at its origins and how to fight it.
One of the most commonly-cited issues when it comes to sexism is the lack of women in positions of respect and power, making it difficult for girls to find role models, and forcing women to struggle as they try to advance socially. Thus, a number of people and organisations have suggested that young girls need to be ’empowered’ to engage more fully with society, be assertive, and take their rightful place as social equals rather than lesser human beings who are only around to be decorative, quiet, and subservient.
Yet, sometimes this language strays dangerously close to victim-blaming. The problem is that while it is necessary to break the socialisation chain and push society to rethink the way it interacts with young women and girls, it’s also necessary to acknowledge that young women and girls can’t do this on their own. The problem here isn’t that they aren’t trying hard enough, but that society is putting immense pressure on them; which means it’s up to us to provide empowering environments and fight for their place in society, to create a world in which equality is such a part of life that they can’t imagine the world any other way.
Which is a lot of work to put on our shoulders, especially since many women of this generation are dealing with the same socialisation and struggling to move past and through it. But it’s not fair to act like young girls are to blame for what they’ll experience as they grow, and to demand that they push through complex social barriers because that’s what they ‘need’ to do in order to succeed. What they need to succeed is nurturing and support, not ’empowerment’ terminology that really effectively just blames them for not being empowered enough.
At the same time that girls are given powerful tools for succeeding in society, we must be careful to reinforce the fact that they are not to blame for what happens to women in society. That women struggle in a variety of ways for fair and equitable treatment, and that those who aren’t able to break the glass ceiling, or command respect, or build fair lives, aren’t somehow defective and less capable than those who are. Because this is a system stacked against women from the very start, one in which women are expected to succeed against all odds; and those odds may shift when young women are girls are empowered by receiving education in supportive environments and being mentored by successful adult women, but they still aren’t in women’s favour.
To pretend that a single generation of empowered young girls can somehow overturn millennia of sexism is absurd, and to some extent damaging, as the implied subtext there is that if they don’t, they have failed. On the contrary: every one of us is part of a hard and complex battle, and it’s one that won’t be resolved in a generation. There’s a reason women and people socialised as women have been fighting for equality for a long time, and why they will continue to do so after this generation is gone.
In an institutional culture of sexism where the status quo is one in which men are in charge, and in which those men are specific kinds of men, it should not come as a surprise that women don’t always succeed, even when they’ve been injected with a dose of empowerment. It behooves us to be careful about how we discuss empowerment, young women, society, and how to get closer to equality; because if we aren’t careful, we run the risk of sending the message to young women that if they aren’t able to overcome the obstacles set in front of them, they’re failing.
But those obstacles move, and they have a tendency to pop up again after you think they’ve gone away. That’s not something most girls and young women are prepared to deal with, no matter how empowered they are, and with constantly shifting obstacles, women are forced to constantly be on the lookout. Hillary Clinton, for example, still deals with sexism every day even though she was one of the most powerful women in the world, and provided an excellent example of an empowered, assertive role model for women across the US. Her success isn’t evidence that ‘anyone can do it,’ but rather that women face an uphill battle, and even when they come almost to the top, people will still be there ready to undermine them.
Empowerment should be as much about teaching women and girls to support each other and confront the system collectively as it should be about individual experiences, which unfortunately are often the focus. Beware the lesson that tells girls to bootstrap their way to equality, for such lessons rarely end well.